Law firms create documents all the time. In a single case, a lawyer and their team can generate a whole library of documents from briefs to affidavits to court filings.
Every single one of these documents needs to be in pristine condition, not just for the sake of professionalism but for the documents to be accepted as valid.
So it’s safe to say that legal formatting is an incredibly important part of the business.
The problem is, between cases and meetings and document preparation, building those documents can get a bit hairy. A perfectly-formatted document could fall apart, or an administrative assistant could pull up an outdated template for a document.
This is where a great document software can save the day. Here’s how you should format some of the most common legal documents, and how a document software can ensure you do it right.
Common Legal Documents
First, let’s take a look at some of the most common legal documents you’ll have to deal with.
Whether you have estate-planning attorneys, criminal attorneys, or corporate attorneys, most firms deal with at least a few of the same basic legal documents. These include things like:
- Pleadings (the beginning stages of a lawsuit, when parties submit their claims and defenses)
- Briefs (arguments as to why the filer should win their case or see their motion approved)
- Affidavits (a statement made under oath claiming that a fact is true to the best of the affiant’s knowledge)
- Instrument (a formal legal document that grants rights, i.e. wills, deeds, etc.)
Naturally, every one of these documents has different rules about formatting, which can create a first-rate mess for your attorneys.
Why You Need Templates
With that in mind, let’s talk about why templates are essential to good document formatting.
Your team does a lot of work in a single day, and you generate a lot of documents. Those documents each have their own unique content--which means they all have their own unique formatting guidelines.
You could spend hours painstakingly crafting each document from scratch. But the truth is, you don’t have time for that. It’s an inefficient way to practice law, and you need something better.
Instead, you could save your time and sanity by turning to premade templates. They’ll ensure that everyone uses exactly the same formatting every time they create a certain kind of document.
Keep in mind, however, that you may need to be careful of document corruption.
What is Document Corruption?
To be clear: incorrect formatting and document corruption are two different things. Incorrect formatting is when you make a mistake manually. Document corruption is a problem with the document itself.
Document corruption is when a document contains data errors that prevent it from loading properly. You can spot it pretty quickly if:
- Your document layout and formatting is all wrong
- You’re seeing screen distortion
- Your document has unreadable characters, wrong icons, or isn’t displaying pictures
- Your document is constantly re-paging
Incorrect formatting can be fixed with a bit of typing. Corruption requires you to identify why the file is corrupted and take corrective action.
When it comes to Word documents, corruptions are usually (but not always) stored in section breaks. If you’re not sure where that is, the final paragraph in a document contains a hidden section break, so a single-section document typically hides corruption in the final paragraph mark.
Keep in mind, however, that corruptions can be stored in any paragraph mark. If you’re working with tables, they can also be stored in end-of-cell or end-of-row markers.
What Causes Document Corruption?
One of the most common culprits in document corruption is old, outdated files that haven’t been updated to be compatible with your new system.
This is easy to avoid so long as you make sure that your templates are updated periodically.
Another common culprit is a corrupt template. This one’s basically a bad seed. It doesn’t matter what you do to it or how you try to fix it--it will still corrupt any new documents based on it.
If you’re creating a custom template, make sure that you create a new clean copy, rather than starting within a default template that could be corrupted later.
Preventing and Fixing Document Corruption
If you’re working with any template or Word document, always inspect it before you begin working with it. Start with the file version. Documents and templates are not created equal--the most recent file version of a document or template will always be more stable than an older one.
From there, direct your attention to formatting and editing to check for improper edits. Check styles, cross references, field codes, content controls--any edit that the document or template went through before it found its way into your hands.
Remember, even a good document can turn into a bad one with too many bad edits. Don’t trust that a document will work--the document formatting relies on the compiled effect of many different formatting decisions.
If you need a clean slate, don’t be afraid to strip a document or template down to the tacks and start over. This will guarantee that any bad edits are cleared away before you start working.
Legal Style Guide and Formatting Elements
When formatting legal documents, it’s best to start with the basic elements. There are:
- Paper size
- Printing and binding
All of these elements come together to form a complete legal document, though the specifications can sometimes vary depending on the document you use.
Let’s start with the most basic element of all: paper size.
Every country has its own standard legal paper size, but most North American countries follow the American ANSI (American National Standards Institute) standards.
So, if you do business in North America, it’s generally safe to abide by U.S. sizing standards. Rather than a regular sheet of paper (sized 8.5 x 11 inches), legal sizing is a bit longer (8.5 x 14 inches), though there’s also junior legal sizing (5 x 8 inches).
Keep in mind, however, that if you’re publishing a legal manuscript, you should abide by traditional publishing practices (i.e. 8.5 x 11 inch paper, printed or typed on one side only).
Font seems like the simplest part of the whole document. But fonts can sometimes speak louder than words.
For one thing, the type of font you use subtly impacts how the reader perceives the whole document--professional and reliable or modern and streamlined?
For another, courts may have an input on what fonts they will and will not accept on legal documents. Take the Virginia Supreme Court, which updated its list of acceptable fonts.
Then again, different courts use different fonts in their opinions. The Supreme Court uses Lucinda Sans Typewriter for daily orders and Century Schoolbook for opinions, while state supreme courts vary (the Supreme Court of Arkansas, for example, likes Garamond) and circuit courts have their own preferences.
So, if you’re worried about staying within the boundaries of court-approved fonts, start by looking up fonts approved by your local and state court system. Ideally try to cover everyone, but if you have to limit your search, look at courts where you spend the most time. The Seventh Circuit Court has a complete guide to typography for those looking to dive deeper.
Another option is to turn to your fellow lawyers. Everyone has a font of choice, though there are plenty of Century Schoolbook fans (because, really, don’t we all secretly want to feel like a Supreme Court justice?)
Margins and Spacing
Margins and spacing are critical in making a document readable.
As a thought experiment, pull up a briefing you recently finished. See what it looks like with the margins as far out as possible. Now see what it looks like with the margins pulled further in.
The entire point of horizontal and vertical text spacing is to make a document readable. To be clear: poor spacing doesn’t make your documents illegible, but it does force the brain to work a little harder in order to process the available information.
And when your case is complicated, you don’t want the reader’s brain focusing on the simple act of processing information. You want your reader focused on the content.
Fortunately, popular word-processing programs like Microsoft Word have pre-built options that allow you to automatically set the margins correctly.
If you’re not using Microsoft Word (or you’re trying to create your own template), set the margins manually. As a rule, the top margin should be two inches and the bottom margin should be one inch. Most legal documents use 1.5 or double-spacing.
Printing and Binding
Now, let’s say you’re filing a Supreme Court booklet. In this case, you would need to print and bind your documents into a booklet.
It’s not as simple as running a document through the printer. The Supreme Court is incredibly specific about how every booklet filed with the court must be prepared in order to be accepted as valid, down to the color of the cover for every different type of filing.
Rule 33.1 establishes formatting guidelines for booklet, from the font (anything in the Century family, like Century Schoolbook, is acceptable) to block quotes (anything larger than 50 words must be indented) to the text field (4 ⅛ inches x 7 ⅛ inches, including footnotes) to binding (bound firmly in at least two places on the left margin for an easily opened volume).
Even the weight of the document is regulated (no less than 60 pounds). Considering the size and weight of the booklet, you would be well-advised to follow the court’s advice and use the preferred saddle stitching or perfect binding.
Legal Document Formatting By Type
We mentioned earlier that formatting specifications can sometimes vary depending on the document you’re preparing.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at formatting rules for a few specific types of legal documents you’re likely to come across.
The first thing to watch with pleadings is the margins.
The entire point of margins and spacing is to make the document more readable. And if you’re handing over a briefing to a judge with a couple hundred other briefings to deal with, readability should be your top priority.
As a rule, go for slightly wider margins on the sides (creating a narrower text field). This will make it easier to read the document efficiently.
From there, it’s time to turn to the sides of the pleading, where the number lines are.
You want to make sure that every line of the pleading matches with the numbers along the sides. Start by making sure that the spacing options for the lines matches spacing options for the numbers, then adjust the caption box up or down on the caption page as needed to bring the first line of text in line with the first number.
Now, if you have a block quote, things may get messy. So it’s important to get the document back under control after a block quote.
Fortunately, this is an easy fix--just add an extra line after the block quote and change the font size of that line to get your numbers and lines back in sync.
Finally, if you’re working with tables, don’t be a horrible person and use the space bar to get text to align in table cells. Use the tab key (CTRL + Tab allows you to add a tab in a table cell instead of tabbing over to the next cell).
For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to refer to the Supreme Court rules on formatting briefs, but it’s a good idea to check with your local or state courts to see if they have different preferences.
First, the content. Each brief must include, in order:
- Questions Presented
- Opinions Below
- Jurisdictional Statement
- Constitutional or Statutory Provisions Involved
- Statement of the Case
Depending on the case you present, other documents may need to be included. For that, refer to Rule 14 for the order in which they should appear. A party’s merits brief must also include a Summary of the Argument immediately before the Argument section.
If you’re submitting a brief for an amicus curiae, refer to Rule 37.
For formatting, again, refer to your old friend, Rule 33.1. Under this rule, briefs should be typeset in fonts in the Century family in 12-point type, with 2-point or more leading between lines. If you have footnotes, put them in 10-point font.
The text field, including footnotes, should be no greater than 4 ⅛ inches wide by 7 ⅛ inches tall (line numbers outside this area are acceptable).
When writing a manuscript for other lawyers to see, you’re dealing with a slightly different set of concerns.
When writing a manuscript, rather than a court document, it’s best to treat it like you would treat any other book manuscript. After all, that’s how the publisher will treat it.
So, stick to standard size paper (8.5 x 11 inches) double-spaced in a readable, professional font. If your firm has a preferred font, it’s fine to use it here.
All chapters, pages, appendixes, and exhibits should be kept in order. Number pages consecutively from start to finish (as opposed to chapter-by-chapter).
When necessary, you should always use endnotes, but don’t bury information in the endnotes. When in doubt, stay away from anything that isn’t a citation.
Preventing Formatting Disasters
Once you know the basic formatting rules, you’re ready to work your way through legal document templates--and troubleshoot potential disasters.
Because the truth is, sometimes the best laid plans (or, rather, the best-laid formatting) go awry.
The best way to prevent disasters is to plan ahead. Know how to manage your documents, know how to assemble your documents, and know who’s in charge of keeping your documents under control.
Here are a few tips to get you started.
Managing an Army of Documents
First, take a look at the army of documents on your servers.
If you generate new documents from scratch every time, your law office will likely have an enormous library of documents that lawyers pull from to hodge-podge a document together as quickly as they can.
The problem, of course, is that this Frankenstein method can create a monster of a document, cobbling together incompatible formatting and bits and pieces of language that doesn’t fit the new document.
Even if you have a few templates that everyone uses, new documents are still created every time someone uses a template.
So, start to take control of your documents.
If you haven’t already, you should create a standard list of go-to templates for your most common legal documents (briefings, pleadings, affidavits, etc.) These documents should be pre-filled based on the most current best practices (including formatting). Make these templates available through the cloud so the whole office can access them.
From there, you’ll need to ensure that your boilerplate stays current. And that means periodic updates to comply with new office standards, re-releasing the improved templates into the wild to replace the old ones.
To stay on top of the task, the best plan is to have a specifically designated document admin.
Automate Document Assembly
However, keep in mind that simply having your templates available isn’t enough.
Formatting legal documents is an incredibly finicky process. And since legal teams have to deal with so many different documents on a single case, it’s easy to overlook a formatting error that they need to fix.
So, eliminate the possibility for the mistake to occur.
Follow the golden rule: never type what you can automate.
Document assembly software makes it easy for you to not just make templates, but update them. You can pre-set your templates to match the necessary criteria faster than you do it manually--and anyone using the template after you won’t have to worry about it.
Software like this also makes it easy to fix formatting hiccups and add boilerplate sections without compromising your formatting.
Knowledge Managers for Legal Templates
Now the task falls to your document admins and office knowledge managers. How can you make sure that documents are routinely updated to reflect your firm’s best practices? How can you distribute forms to ensure everyone can access them?
And most importantly, how do you know that your attorneys are actually using them?
For that, turn to a cloud-based template management system.
This kind of system makes it easy to automate basic tasks so that you can focus on bigger things, like ensuring that attorneys have access to updated templates.
Instead of an office-wide email explaining what templates should be used, you can update your old boilerplate and roll out the new changes with just a few clicks. That way, your staff will always have access to the most current version of any given template.
Making Legal Formatting Easier
Legal formatting can be a nightmare for your attorneys, especially in a complicated case. And when you’re dealing with big cases, you’d rather have your attorneys focused on the big picture.
So, take the small details off their plate with a system that makes everyone’s lives easier.
Twenty years ago, we began practicing in large law firms. We left the business for one reason: the way law is practiced now just isn’t working for lawyers. We want you to be an advocate, to be able to use your knowledge to serve your clients.
That’s why we built a better software. We help you streamline your processes so that you can focus on what matters most--your clients.
Ready to see what we can do? Click here to schedule a demo today.